Ohio State football's early enrollees acclimate amid unusual circumstances due to COVID-19

Joey Kaufman
Buckeye Xtra
Receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. of St. Joseph's Prep in Philadelphia hauls in a touchdown reception in Pennsylvania's Class 6A championship win over Central York, one of only six games St. Joseph's played this fall.

When incoming freshmen first arrived at Ohio State in past Januarys to begin offseason strength and conditioning programs and enroll in their first semester of classes, OSU coach Ryan Day sought to be a good host.

His football staff greeted players and their families with dinners at the Woody Hayes Athletic Center, the type of welcome event often associated with parents dropping sons off at colleges.

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But as the coronavirus pandemic persists, the usual fare was lacking when 15 early enrollees rolled in last month. Instead of meeting for a feast, they quarantined in dorms for a week before arriving at the facility.

Most of them had been scattered across various parts of the country before traveling to Columbus, necessitating a need for self-isolation as part of the program’s COVID-19 protocols. No one wanted their arrival to precipitate the spread of the virus in the building.

The circumstances were less than ideal for the group; on a conference call with reporters earlier this month, Day referred to the situation as “very difficult” and “very challenging.”

Persevering through the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic

On the other hand, Day still was left impressed by the newcomers’ perseverance in dealing with the unusual situation.

Not only did the pandemic impact the start of their careers at Ohio State, but it also upended the late stages of their recruitments and senior seasons in high school. They were unable to visit campus last fall on official visits or attend games in Ohio Stadium.

During a December news conference introducing the decorated 2021 recruiting class, Day marveled at the fact some of them had committed to the Buckeyes without visiting the campus. Sight unseen. Other prospects never met one another in person.  

It was why Day took notice when he spotted some of the camaraderie among the freshmen during a recent lunch together.

“They hadn’t really seen each other and met each other ever in person, but they’re laughing with each other, making fun of each other, joking like they’ve known each other for years,” Day said. “And I couldn’t help but think it’s because of Zoom. They did an unbelievable job of getting to know each other over the past year.

“Because of that, it’s already a really tight group. The maturity of these guys is off the charts. The leadership with these guys is excellent. All the feedback we’re getting from our people, these 15 guys got a chance to be special.”

Preparing for spring practice

The freshmen are to spend the next month working out in small groups in preparation for spring practice, which is tentatively scheduled to begin in the middle of March.

The weeks ahead are the chance for many of them to become “stronger” and to “understand our culture,” Day said.

Through the early weeks of the offseason program, he mentioned wide receiver Marvin Harrison Jr. and defensive tackle Tyleik Williams as two of the first-year players who showed promise.

Day noted Harrison “looked like a different person when he walked in the building.”

“Like, he was (6 feet 3) and north of 200 pounds,” Day added. “Looks great.”

He was similarly impressed with the size of Williams, who is listed as 6-3, 330 pounds.

“He moves well for a big size,” Day said. “That's a big, big inside guy we’re excited to have.”

One of the particular challenges for the group in acclimating to college is the limited number of games they played in last fall.

Some saw their high school teams’ schedules shortened due to the pandemic. Others never played at all. Virginia’s prep season was pushed back until the spring, sidelining running back Treveyon Henderson. Jack Sawyer, a defensive end from Pickerington North, opted out.

For that reason, Day has discussed the idea of holding more simulated games during spring practice. It might further get the group of freshmen up to speed.

jkaufman@dispatch.com

@joeyrkaufman